So James Horwill has been, for a second time, cleared of stamping on Alun-Wyn Jones’ face. He was initially exonerated, before the IRB appealed their own findings… only to clear him a second time. Baffled? Me too.
Their official wording was, “it could not be said that the judicial officer was manifestly wrong or that the interests of justice otherwise required his decision be overturned.” Did they ever really expect to overturn their own decision? Or was this simply a game to appease the Lions?
So the #JusticeforHorwill campaign, which has been doing the rounds of social media recently, has got its desired outcome. This despite every man and his dog (or kangaroo – even Australians can’t claim ignorance in this case) knowing that there is no way that Horwill’s foot could have landed in that position by accident.
He is obviously a decent bloke with an exemplary disciplinary record, but whether it was a case of the red mist descending for a moment or simply that he was aiming for somewhere a bit less vicious than the face, Horwill was guilty of stamping on Alun-Wyn Jones. For that he should at least have been ruled out of the rest of the series.
He is the totem of this Australia team. Genia and company behind the scrum might make the headlines, but it is around Horwill that they rally, and he is the one to whom they turn when the chips are down and chasing the game – as they have been in both tests so far. He played an almighty role in hauling them back from the brink of series defeat to set up a decider.
Of course, Paul O’Connell fulfilled this role for the Lions. He was every bit as inspirational and important to the men in red as Horwill is to the Wallabies. That one has been ruled out by bad luck and the other has been allowed to keep playing despite an act of foul play does not seem just.
This is not an anti-Australia or even anti-Southern Hemisphere article. In fact, it conjures up distasteful memories of the Cian Healy affair in the Six Nations. He was at least banned, but after appealing and only missing one game, most people agreed at the time it was an insufficient punishment for the crime – again, what looked like a moment of red mist. It’s all very well offering contrition and regret at the disciplinary hearing, as both Healy and Horwill undoubtedly did, but that does not excuse the act.
In a seemingly separate disciplinary universe, Richard Cockerill was banned for nine weeks for using abusive language on the touchline of the Aviva Premiership Final. Admittedly he has previous form, but that length of ban, compared with nothing for a stamp that, deliberate or not, could have blinded Alun-Wyn Jones, surely is not right. Similarly, with regard to the Healy incident, Sergio Parisse was banned at the same time for significantly longer for the use of bad language.
Why is it that swearing seems to be a more punishable offence than potentially ending someone’s career? I appreciate it is never deliberate (although it is tough to see how Horwill and Healy weren’t at least trying to cause some form of harm) but that does not excuse it either.
Nor am I saying Cockerill or Parisse’s bans should be reduced or overturned – there is no place for abuse of officials in the game – but the severity of their bans compared to Healy’s, and the non-existence of Horwill’s, seems strikingly disproportionate.
Rugby players live on the edge. To do their job effectively, they must be pumped up and play right on the line between aggression and thuggery. Occasionally, someone will overstep this line, but to properly dissuade players from doing it more often the punishments must surely be stricter or, in the case of Horwill, at the very least enforced. The point here is that the disciplinary system needs a shake-up, and Horwill is merely the latest in a line of players (Healy, Woodcock, Burger etc.) who have got off lightly for crimes that deserved greater punishment.
If the Lions win on Saturday then this will all be forgotten and, frankly, no-one will care that Horwill was on the pitch. But if Horwill leads Australia to a series victory there will be Lions fans screaming that he should not have been on the pitch for the final two games, and who knows what might have happened had justice been served. They would have a point.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43